Hello Folks! There has been an odd trend lately where predominantly middle-aged women are spouting nonsense about conditions like ASD, ADD, ADHD etc… to be a modern problem. While it is obvious to most people who don’t have to worry about their brain cell getting lonely that this is clearly rubbish, I thought it would be interesting to explore where this comes from. There are a few different ideas and theories about how autism has shown itself throughout the ages and here is a concise introduction to the most common ones.
The first one that is commonly cited as being historical evidence of autism can be found in many myths and legends throughout the centuries. I must admit that my knowledge is largely based on European myths, but if anyone has any myths from different parts of the world then I would love for you to leave a comment or message me and perhaps I can write a follow up post. Myths often arise in order for people to explain phenomenon that they do not otherwise have a reasonable answer for. The Kraken is likely based on giant squid sightings and the various drooling, red-eyed dog myths are probably based on unexplained rabies. I also do not think that people used to have as many encounters with demons and monsters as historical literature would have you believe. It seems logical to me that these people were suffering from some sort of hallucinations mixed with a healthy dose of religious oppression and some mass hysteria to really spice things up.
The myth that is often thought to relate to those with ASD is that of ‘changelings.’ For those who haven’t heard of this, changelings are a term given to children who were believed to be the offspring of faeries, who stole the original human child and left their own instead. Stemming from Irish folklore, changelings were often described to be ‘deformed’ and/or ‘strange in manor,’ something which the people of the time saw as unacceptable. These children were often described as crying a lot, being aloof or just generally being in some way unusual. There is quite a lot of information about this topic on the internet, but a rather short search would show you that many of the characteristics described are all now often found in those with ASD or Down’s Syndrome alongside other developmental disorders. Unfortunately, the psychiatric understanding of the time was rather behind what it is now. Leaving the babies to die was common and there are several reports of throwing the children into a fire or drowning them, as this was supposedly a way to combat this particular brand of fae mischief. There are many mentions in old records of children around 3 being killed by their parents as they were suspected to be a changeling on account of their inability to speak or strange behaviour. Even if you survived childhood you were not exempt from this foolishness. In 1895, Bridget Cleary was tortured and killed by a group of 7 people, one of whom was her husband because he thought she was a changeling. She was 26 at the time and a full account of what happened can be found here. I would warn you though that it is really unpleasant reading.
I’m afraid that prospects for neurodiverse people were not much better in the larger cities. They were less commonly killed in horrific acts of violence but were instead kept locked away and heavily medicated in institutions or asylums. Behaviours found in autistic people such as stimming, poor social skills or repeated actions or phrases were enough for some people to find themselves labelled as ‘dangerous’, ‘delusional’ or possibly diagnosed as schizophrenic. Whilst in these institutions they would be subject to awful conditions and treatments and would often be completely cut off from society and spend the rest of their life imprisoned for a condition that they did not have. Quite aside from the fact that no-one, regardless of their condition, should be treated like that, many of these autistic people were given inappropriate treatment as they were misdiagnosed. This fed into a vicious cycle, as they obviously didn’t respond to treatment and so, coupled with the horrible conditions they lived in, they regressed and so ‘proved’ to their captors that they deserved to be locked away.
Of course, there are many autistic people that will not have been subject to this and will have grown up to live a relatively normal life. If they didn’t have parents who were happy to kill them on the off chance they were a faerie, it was possible that these children actually might have had an easier time living life in more rural communities. One of the biggest issues for autistic people nowadays is the abundance of loud noises, bright lights, powerful smells and strange textures surrounding us in the world. Let us think about a child born with autism who is born to a small farming community and a loving family. We will name her Ethel.
When Ethel is born she is a quiet baby and as she grows up she doesn’t speak much and is very nervous around the other children. She doesn’t have many friends and she prefers to be alone, but she is excellent at weaving and seems to enjoy the motions, rocking in her spot as she does this for hours on end. Sometimes her parents try to encourage her to play with the other kids, but she only likes the company of one other – his name is Mygdon. Mygdon works with his Dad, helping him to herd the sheep out on the hillside. He prefers to be alone with only the sheep, where it is quiet and there is no one else to disturb him. The sheep seem to like him and they will come up to him and let him stroke them. Mygdon enjoys feeling the texture of their wool and they help him calm down when the people in the village have been whispering behind his back. He doesn’t understand them very well and he finds them confusing and tiring. Ethel, however, lets him sit beside her in silence and he sometimes brings her a gift of wool, which she manages to refine and weave into wonderful patterns. Ethel likes Mygdon because he speaks in a clear way which she can understand easily. He is kind to her and walks quietly around her, rather than the other people who walk so loudly and insist on putting objects down with so much noise. Ethel and Mygdon can talk to each other and neither feels the need to force eye contact, or even be facing each other for conversation. Ethel learns to hone her craft of weaving and earns a reputation for being good at what she does. She works inside by herself and no one bothers her too much because they know it will disrupt her work. She is so good at it so there is little need to bother her about town matters when she is usually so disinterested and instead spends her time creating durable and elaborate pieces of fabric. Mygdon continues watching over the flock, helping them to thrive as they trust him enough to assist them when their lambs get sick. He keeps them safe from predators as he always chooses to stand guard over them, even when the townsfolk are organising activities together.
In this example –which I admit turned into something I didn’t expect, now leaving me wondering whether I should publish a short story about Ethel and Mygdon’s lives- both our characters are able to live in a way that suits them, rather than being forced through a school system that is designed for about 5% of people to thrive in. They aren’t surrounded by bright lights and tall buildings, nor are they subject to huge swathes of people not caring who they trample over to get to where they are going. This is a simplistic view of how their life would have panned out, but it is indisputable that they would have had significantly less artificial stimuli.
Ethel and Mygdon’s fictional story notwithstanding, the past has been rather bleak for those with possible undiagnosed autism. There are also lots of cases where those labelled as the ‘village idiot’ would now fit many of the diagnostic criteria for autism, but instead of receiving help they were just laughed at and called a fool. I thought therefore it might be nice if we look at some of the famous people in history who many suspect may have been autistic:
- Isaac Newton – Mr Newton is most famous for his work on gravity and laws of motion (all of which I can still recite thanks to my very thorough A-level physics teachers!) He was notoriously disinterested in socialisation and would get so focussed on his work that he forgot to eat. Autistic or not, I hold a personal grudge against Newton due to his smear campaign of Gottfried Leibniz, my historical mathematical icon.
- Albert Einstein – Mr Einstein is one of the most famous scientists in the world and is a classic example of someone who most professionals would agree was somewhere on the spectrum. He is said to have had trouble socialising, speech delays as a child and also would repeat things over and over again. One article published in the new scientist talks about how he is thought to have been autistic, although it does give the quote:
“[Glen] Elliott adds that Einstein had a good sense of humour, a trait that is virtually unknown in people with severe Asperger syndrome.”
I feel this is really quite rude and unnecessary. Mr Elliot is a psychiatrist and I think he needs to do a bit more field work and/or listen to a selection of my finest jokes before he makes blanket statements like that. (See end of post for a joke!)
- Benjamin Banneker – Mr Banneker was a largely self-taught mathematician and author amongst other professions, building a working wooden clock at age 21, making significant progress in the field of astrology and eventually corresponding with Thomas Jefferson about racial equality. He is said to have displayed “odd behaviour” and would become obsessed over objects and study them in extreme detail. It should however be noted that there is some debate about the accounts of his life and work, although this is likely due to him being an African American man and other people being very racist.
- Henry Cavendish – Mr Cavendish is known as the discoverer of Hydrogen, although I’m pretty sure it was there the whole time and he just named it. He was really rather brilliant and many of what he discovered was not realised until after his death, when his colleagues went through his notes. He was known for being incredibly reclusive and avoiding any human interaction, including ordering his servants to bring him his meal by way of a note left on a table.
There are many other people of note who people have conjectured to be autistic and so I would encourage you to search up these names and do some further reading if that sort of thing interests you. This has been a brief overview of some of the theories behind how autistic people have been presenting throughout history. Some people have been calling the increase in ASD diagnoses an ‘epidemic’ and are still clutching to the idea that it is all due to modern medicine and vaccines. I think you will agree with me that in the midst of this pandemic, it is important now more than ever to ensure children get their vaccinations as you have seen what a true epidemic-turned-pandemic can do to the world. There is no larger proportion of autistic people alive today than there were 100 years ago. The difference is that we are now beginning to recognise that instead of killing oddballs we should just help them live in a world that hurts them. Autistic people are not cropping up like odd socks in your washing machine. Instead we were always there and now you are just finding the other sock rather than throwing us away or leaving us in the machine and hoping the problem goes away. Perhaps you just find a different purpose for us, as not all socks need to have their pair. We are still perfectly good socks and it is only your insistence on needing a matching set that stops you from allowing us to fulfil our full potential as footwear. Broaden your horizons and think about what we as a sock can offer before casting us aside or pretending you just didn’t see us.
Okay, the metaphor started out as weak and didn’t get much stronger, so I’m going to leave it there for today and wish you all a nice day. Thanks for reading,
If I had a pound for every time I was confused, I would be wondering where all the money was coming from!
My new year’s resolution was to stop procrastinating, but I never got round to it
These kind of jokes usually earn me long, disappointed stares from those I tell them to, but this way I can’t see anyone’s face!